Three Generations of Superlative Boatbuilders. William Fife III, the last and most famous of the Fife boat building dynasty, gave global resonance to an already well-known name in British boating circles. His grandfather and father had already established a solid reputation as master boatbuilders, distinguished by the exquisite craftsmanship and increasingly superb design of the boats produced in their boatyard in Fairlie, on the western coast of Scotland, starting in the early 1800’s and then spanning 140 years of British boatbuilding history. The name Fife would become synonymous with excellent construction and superb craftsmanship expressed in fast vessels of dynamic design for generations to come.
William Fife I (1785–1865) What was to become the historic Fife boatyard in Fairlie was founded by an ambitious eighteen-year-old William Fyfe. He had built his first boat in his spare time while working as as a cart and millwright, yet the craft was so well-built that he had a client for it before it was finished. He quit his job in 1803 and rented a small plot of land near the shores of the Firth of Clyde from the Earl of Glasgow to set up shop. His specialty was fishing boats and trading smacks, which quickly gained a reputation for the high quality of the work, a factor which would distinguish his boats and those of namesake son and grandson.
William, a self-made man, scaled up from fishing boats to larger vessels after reading “Steele’s Naval Architecture”, going on to build his first large yacht, the 50 ton Lamlash, commissioned by James Hamilton of Holmhead and Captain James Oswald of Scotstoun, in 1812.
The shipyard on the foreshore of Fairlie, where Fife boats were to be built for three generations, was still a rather basic operation, with boats being built in the open and little more than a shed for carpentry tools, a steambox, and a blacksmith’s forge nearby.
Nevertheless, in 1814 the shipyard under his guidance produced a wood paddle steamer, Industry, which was a success. The market was ripe yet William declined orders for more, as he wanted to continue building coastal fishing and trading vessels, on which he kept his focus.
Despite his established reputation as a particularly skilled master boatbuilder known for his attention to detail and high-quality work, and the resulting successes of his steamer and a few yachts, as well as his large fishing smacks
considered to be the fastest boats on those waters, he was hesitant to stray from the light vessels that were the bread-and-butter of his business, and continued producing light coastal working sailboats for the rest of his days.
But small or large as they may be, all his vessels received the same punctilious attention from him, a hallmark of his work and even more so that of his descendants. The boatyard would shift its focus to producing yachts in the second half of the century under the management of his eldest son and namesake.
William Fife II (1821–1902), also know as William Fife Sr., had started working in the boatyard as an apprentice at 13 years of age, and was no less a talent than his father. At 19, his father passed the yacht building part of the business to him. The first years, during which the younger Fife completely took over the management of the company, were not easy due to the unfavorable British economy at the time.
He took his chances almost ten years later. The times were changing, and the economy of Britain under Queen Victoria was starting to flourish. William II got his break in 1849 by building the 40 ton cutter Stella with borrowed money, with which he also upgraded the shipyard’s facilities, hoping it would sell as well as the smaller vessels they had mostly built until then. It did.
Stella was the success that gave William II and his designs a credibility in the eyes of the public which started a steady stream of yacht orders for almost a century to come. This was not only the first yacht on which the boatyard made a significant profit, it was the turning point after which the Fife enterprise would move its focus from working boats to yachts, luxurious racing machines for the affluent.
Yachts were becoming, then as today, one of the sought-after status symbols for a new rising upper-middle class; and the nobility who until then had had exclusive access to leisure sailing and formal racing had no intention of being left behind. This new mixed breed of boat owners, aristocrats and competitive businessmen, not only wanted a vessel that would turn heads at the dock, they wanted a sailboat that would bring trophies home. In the upper echelons and sailing fraternities, owning a beautiful boat wasn’t enough, the ultimate status symbols were the cups and flags it could collect.
The Fairlie shipyard was a well-equipped production site by then with large covered areas and more than the steambox and the forge with which it had begun fifty years earlier, and was now able to deliver whatever idea, design or refinement Mr. Fife could want to produce. William II now had everything he needed to move forward with determination; he had the ideas and the credibility matched by an eager clientele, and a boatyard able to deliver the outstanding vessels that would hereon be associated with the name Fife.
And then came Fiona, an 80 ton cutter William II built in 1865, dubbed the “Fawn of Fairlie”, or “Terrible Fiona” depending on whether you cheered for her or competed against her. She was built for speed, and fast she was, winning many prizes and bringing many a trophy home, especially under the competitive captaincy of John Houston who pushed her to her limits.
In 1874 William II built another winner, Bloodhound, which like all preceding boats was his own design. The original commissioner of Bloodhound died shortly after construction had begun, but by now the Fife reputation guaranteed that there wouldn’t be a shortage of buyers. She was bought by the Marquis of Ailsa, with whom she quickly rose to fame on the Clyde.
Bloodhound made quick business of the competition on the Firth of Clyde, where she soon became the boat to beat. But tragedy had marked this boat from its construction days, as much as fame and glory had during its racing days; she was sunk in 1907 after being hit by a steam yacht at the starting line of a race. Raised out of the water two years later and completely refurbished, she went on to win and impressive array of prizes, which included 116 first places, only to be completely destroyed by fire in 1922 in Southhampton. Her mast survived and serves as flagstaff at Cowes.
There were two principal factors that contributed to the success of the Fife’s. The meticulous attention of the leadership to the design and their execution, and the craftsmanship of the building crews. With William II and III came a vision that the first William couldn’t afford to have, due to circumstances and maybe by character. The first half of the 19th century was largely a time of austerity for the British, and William I was wary of foraying into the production of larger boats. But his son, William II and especially his grandson William III were to bring a vision that was groundbreaking in yachting at a time of opulence and splendor of the British Empire when money could and would be lavished on boats.
One area in which the Fife family did not seem to use their fantasy much was the name of the children. The three generations of master boatbuilders, the “wizards” were all called William, but maybe this was more due to a penchant for tradition and legacy. But they were all practical men who had no qualms about rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, especially the first two.
However, with each generation came a refinement, and more attention to science and mathematical calculations and in the end the chemistry of composites. Nevertheless it was always Mr. Fife who made sure that the boats, from fishing smacks to luxurious yachts, that left the their boatyard set an ever-higher standard, on and off the water. It was not easy to make a nicer or faster sailboat than those that were made in Fairlie. Indeed, their boats were truly “fast and bonnie”.
But it was with William III, also known as William Jr., that the Fairlie boatyard made history in earnest. (Please refer to the dedicated article).